Home News Julius Malema: enfant terrible of South Africa’s ANC

Julius Malema: enfant terrible of South Africa’s ANC

Published on 10/11/2011

South Africa's firebrand youth leader Julius Malema is a baby-faced militant whose racially charged rhetoric forced the nation to confront its gaping divide between rich and poor.

Since being elected president of the ruling African National Congress’s Youth League in 2008, Malema has stirred controversy with divisive and provocative remarks — resulting in a five-year suspension from the party on Thursday.

From his revival of an anti-apartheid song that exhorts listeners to “shoot the white farmer” — for which he was found guilty of hate speech in a civil case in September — to his calls for white-owned land to be seized and given to poor blacks, Malema is never far from the headlines.

The 30-year-old revels in such controversy, feeding the caricature among critics that he is a dangerous and uncontrollable buffoon.

During his short political career, he has claimed to speak for the frustrated millions of poor South Africans for whom democracy has yet to bring better living conditions.

Last month, he gathered thousands of youths to march for “economic freedom” in a country with a 25 percent unemployment rate — though detractors said the turnout was relatively small for South Africa, where protests routinely number in the tens of thousands.

The ANC has long tolerated Malema’s outbursts — and, some observers say, used them to divert attention from its own lack of progress on eradicating inequality since the end of apartheid in 1994.

But the final straw for the party was his call for regime change in neighbouring Botswana, whose democratically elected government he accused of being “in full cooperation with imperialists”.

That landed him in a disciplinary hearing on charges of sowing divisions in the ruling party and bringing it into disrepute.

The slapdown by Nelson Mandela’s former anti-apartheid movement is Malema’s biggest political setback to date, adding to his woes as police investigate shady business dealings.

Born to a domestic worker in 1981, Malema grew up poor in the northern province of Limpopo.

His power lies in his poor black audience which has been left in the shadows of South Africa’s freedom and to whose frustrations he speaks with promises to redistribute the country’s wealth.

But “Juju”, as he is often called, lives in a style that has little to do with the poor he defends.

He is a lover of designer clothes, fast cars and big houses. He lives in a posh Johannesburg suburb, and is famous for his Breitling watch worth some 250,000 rand ($32,000, 23,000 euros).

His lifestyle has drawn the attention of authorities who are now investigating whether he earned kickbacks from oiling tenders for government contracts.

Having already provoked alarm among whites and foreign investors, his unruliness is now a worry to the ANC as internal jockeying increases ahead of party elections next year.

Malema’s backing helped sweep President Jacob Zuma to power three years ago. But his ties with the man for whom he once vowed to kill are increasingly bitter.

His backers made it clear that Zuma has fallen from the ANC Youth League’s grace by burning his picture on the first day of Malema’s disciplinary hearing, when hundreds of supporters clashed with police outside party headquarters, hurling rocks and bottles at officers and journalists.

He has also outraged rights groups for suggesting a woman who accused Zuma of rape, in a case dismissed in 2006, had a “nice time”, and for referring to Indians as “coolies”.

But with supporters like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the controversial former wife of the country’s beloved first democratic president, Malema has appeared politically untouchable — until now.